After some 80 years of unregulated mining, mostly coal and limestone, the northeastern state of Meghalaya is set to adopt a mineral policy that aims to organise the lucrative sector and boost its performance. The state cabinet approved the Meghalaya Mineral Policy 2010 last month and it is due to be introduced in next month’s state assembly winter session for approval.
The state government was forced to act after it was punished by the Guwahati High Court twice. Last year the court fined the state Rs 50,000 for not having a mining policy, and Rs 5 lakh earlier this year for not regulating the rampant mining. The court also directed Meghalaya to submit a report on framing the policy by November 30.
Coal and limestone mining are two of Meghalaya’s biggest industries and the state also has sizable deposits of uranium, granite, kaolin, clay and glass sand. But since all land in the state falls under the Sixth Schedule of the constitution and is protected tribal land, the mines belong to tribal owners. Mining in the state is therefore disorganized. The sector is not known for safety measures, no pollution-control certificate is required and any resident is allowed exploration and mining.
Meghalaya is also notorious for rat-hole mining where small 1-2 ft holes lead to mining tunnels. Due to the size of these tunnels, only small-built adults or children can be employed as miners and estimates show that about 70,000 children are employed in the sector in Meghalaya’s seven districts.
Mining minister B M Lanong, however, said that there is no question of immediately suspending rat-hole mining under the new policy. “This is a traditional form of mining in Meghalaya which has been in practice for 80-odd years now and we can’t just end it. It would mean a war between the government and the stakeholders which is the coal miners,” Lanong told The Sunday Express.
The Centre has never interfered with the traditional mining methods of the state, the minister said. “They have never been strict with mining in Meghalaya because they know this is tribal land and customary laws prevail,” he said. Now, the new policy has put in place safeguards and mine owners will be responsible for who they employ. This means no child labour and workers will have to be given food, medical assistance, sanitary surroundings and safety equipment.
While Lanong admits that mine owners will still not need environmental clearance or